Review: Without Singing, the Moth Hits the High Notes in ‘The Echo Drift’

Posted January 14, 2018 9:42 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The cocoon arrives in the jail cell as a stowaway, an unexpected lump in a bowl of prison gruel. When Walker Loats, bored inmate number 1439, plucks it glistening from her spoon, she doesn’t realize that she’s found some company.

And what charismatic company it is. Once hatched, the fluttering white contents of that cocoon steal the show in “The Echo Drift,” a visually and aurally layered chamber opera about time and punishment at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

“Well, hello there,” the moth says, introducing himself to Walker. “It’s me, dear. From the soup?”

Walker (sung by mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert) is a murderer obsessively petitioning the governor for release, sure that the seeming eternity she has served is sufficient payment for her crime. To the short-lived moth (a projected animation spoken by performance artist John Kelly), time is the enemy, but Walker keeps desperate track of its passage with a metronomic clock she’s built by hand.

The story, though, is the least interesting element of “The Echo Drift,” which has a libretto by Elle Kunnos de Voss and Kathryn Walat. Directed by Mallory Catlett and conducted by Nicholas DeMaison in its world premiere at the Prototype festival, the production puts music, by Mikael Karlsson, on an equal footing with design, seeking multidimensionality on both fronts. Stark and intricate, propulsive and a little film-noir, “The Echo Drift” is most exciting when it is fast and cacophonous, nearly overwhelming the senses.

In the black-box Rose Nagelberg Theater, rich acoustic playing by the International Contemporary Ensemble is layered with electronic sound, processed live by Levy Lorenzo. With a physical environment designed by Kunnos de Voss, what the eye sees is just as complex and alluring as what the ear hears, particularly the animations (by Dara Hamidi) that are the most pulse-quickening element of Simon Harding’s projection design.

Walker’s gray cell is a metal-frame cube floating inside another metal-frame cube, sometimes lit (by Christopher Kuhl) with moody shadows and often used as a surface for projections, which also fill an upstage wall. Whenever the moth speaks, we see him swell in size like a sound wave anthropomorphized; under his voice we hear a scritchy noise that, comic-cruelly, brings to mind a bug zapper.

In the midst of all this alluring muchness, it’s strange — and, in a way, a sign of trouble — that Kelly persistently draws the eye. Plainly dressed and usually off to the side, seated with the musicians, he isn’t trying to upstage anyone with his wry, unadorned performance.

“The Echo Drift” is, after all, about the unrepentant Walker, who is not doing so well at keeping hold of her tormented mind. Yet the moth, her taunting inquisitor, is the more clearly written character. Despite Gaissert’s accomplished vocal performance, in Kelly’s hands the insect is the more fully human role, too.

Event Information:

‘The Echo Drift’

Through Jan. 20 at Baruch Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, prototypefestival.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.